Lawrence J. Herrera was born and raised in Oakland, California.
One of six boys, he grew up with resourceful and creative parents; immigrants from Spain and Portugal. He recalls a happy childhood, filled with family and friends.
“And then my parents took in two more boys (who lost their parents), ” he told me when we met at the Stables last week, where three of his prints hang in the current show. “They thought, we already have six, what’s two more?”
He began drawing as a small boy and his talent was recognized early by a teacher who proved to be a true angel in his life. The day we met, Herrera was enjoying a visit by three old friends and their wives. The men had all known one another since they were boys, growing up in the same Oakland neighborhood, where they had met in that same teacher’s art class.
Through his teaching skill, mentorship and encouragement, Herrera and his friends went on to study with him at the College of Arts & Crafts, and later he was awarded the William Rice Scholarship for Summer Study 1957-59 (via the same teacher), and continued on to the Academy of Art in San Francisco where he was awarded a full scholarship from 1962-64. In an almost implausible twist of fate, the teacher followed suit!
The unlikely luck of having the ongoing guidance of a mentor throughout one’s youth is extraordinary, and Herrera doesn’t take it lightly. He remembers growing up in the Bay Area during the 60’s hippie heyday of love ins and sit ins and bad trips. Seeing all that spinning around him, with his teacher’s constant presence, urging him to see more, to look at things differently, enabled him to keep his head down and focused on his art.
After marrying and divorcing, and living all around the Bay Area, the Southwest beckoned.
“I read Frank Waters’ Book of the Hopi,” he smiles at the memory, “and began travelling to Hopi land.” I asked him which Mesa? “Second,” he responded before telling me a story.
“When I first went, I noticed a man walking along the side of the road and asked if I could give him a lift.” He laughed, “ he said yes and told me I could drop him off at his son’s house.”
“Forty miles later we were still driving.” He said. “But he and his wife remained close to me until they died.” He paused. “I would go there often, and eventually I found my way here.”
Since 1991, Herrera has lived and worked in Taos. “I got here and bought a house sight unseen!” He said laughing. “I loved it here right away.”
Since then Herrera has been an important member of the Taos Art community; he was involved in The Taos Society of Portrait Artists from its inception after being founded in 2000 by Seamus Berkeley. The TSPA met every Saturday for three-hour sessions in various studios and museums from The Millicent Rogers to Nicolai Fechin’s house. Outdoors in private gardens and public places, the venue never mattered.
“We’d hire a model and go to work.” He told me. “Or we’d just paint one another.”
Their illustrious list of past and present participants — “some of us still meet,” — include (but are not limited to), the talented and renowned Taos artists Seamus Berkeley, Tom Rogers, Kristine McAllister, George Chacon,, Ron Barsano, Nancy Delpero, Dwarka Bonner (Herrera’s long time partner), and Randall LaGro. The artists often took turns as models and the portraits in Herrera’s upcoming show at Magpie, opening this weekend, feature several familiar faces.
The diverse array of characters in this group makes one wonder why they needed models at all?
“I still participate in figure drawing groups,” Herrera explained as we sat talking. I wondered out loud what drew him to continue making figurative work at a time when it seems to have waned in popularity? I had noted that even within the abstractions in the prints he was showing at the Stables, the human figure emerged; one of the pieces is a portrait, in profile, almost iconic surrounded by a halo.
“A happy accident,” Herrera smiled. “ That’s the magic of printing, but yes, I love the human figure,” he said. “I love people!” He laughed. “So I always make figurative work.” Herrera, who taught Figure Drawing at UNM from 2002 – 2005, still uses their presses to make his work, although he does have a small press at home. “It’s much easier to use that space,” he explained, “ I can make more (and bigger) work.”
After a scary bout with cancer, Herrera is in complete remission, and looked great that day and seemed to have more energy than most people half his age. He appears much younger than his years, and when we were joined by two of the three boyhood friends as our conversation drew to a close, I noticed how youthful they all seemed and looked. All of them have lived full and meaningful, creative lives, yet none but Herrera threw themselves into the life of an artist.
One is in advertising, another is a cabinetry maker (“extraordinary work”, Herrera told me), and they love visiting their old friend “Larry”, in Taos. “He was always the best artist among us,” one said. “You weren’t so bad yourself!” Herrera retorted. They walked over to have a last look at his prints hanging in the show. “He was definitely the best,” I heard one comment quietly.
Herrera has long participated in group shows including Taos Invites Taos, Taos Fall Arts, Artes Descartes, UNM Taos shows and Pressing On since their inception. Other notable exhibits in the past 20 years include a show of large paintings at UNM’s Harwood offices, a retrospective solo exhibit at the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles, exhibits at Fremont Gallery in Pasadena, Rod Hubble Gallery in Santa Fe, Sage Fine Art, and Hensley Gallery Southwest.
He is delighted to be having a one man show here in Taos. His artist’s statement for the show is such a perfect conveyance of his decidedly, painterly approach to his work, I thought it well worth including: Detailed observation is required to convey not only the visage but also the character of the subject of a portrait. The ability to analyze the very subtle variations that define a face, as well as the translation of those features onto a canvas and subsequent need for corrections, adjustments, is a gift which is developed through practice and repetition. Decades of figure drawing and portrait painting have provided me the opportunity to hone these skills, a challenge which I love.
Lawrence J. Herrera at Magpie is the final show of the gallery’s season, and opens this Saturday October 5th, with a reception for the artist from 5-7pm.
For more information please visit the sites linked below.
Photographs of Lawrence J. Herrera thanks to Dwarka Bonner (who also made all the arrangements for our meeting and interview.)
Other images thanks to Georgia Gersh.